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We know all about the sixteen or so universities that run “BSc” degrees in hokum. They are all “post-1992” universities, which used to be polytechnics. That is one reason why it saddens me to see them destroying their own attempts to achieve parity with older universities by running courses that I would regard as plain dishonest.

Older universities do not run degree courses in such nonsense. Academics (insofar as they still have any influence) certainly would not put up with it if they tried. But nevertheless you can find quackery in some of the most respected universities, and it gets there not via academics but (guess what) via Human Resources.  It creeps in through two routes.  One is the “training courses” that research staff now have to do (the “Roberts agenda”).  The other route is through occupational health services.

Quackery in training courses

It isn’t easy to find out what happens elsewhere, but I was certainly surprised to find out that UCL’s own HR department was offering a course that promised to teach you the “core principles” of Brain Gym and  Neurolinguistic Programming, both totally discredited bits of psycho-babble, more appropriate to the lifestyle section of a downmarket.women’s magazine than a university.  I gather that HR’s reaction after I brought this to light was not to ask what was wrong with it, but just to get angry.

In a spirit of collegiality I offered to run a transferable skills course myself.  I even offered to do it for nothing (rather than the rumoured £700 per day charged by the life style consultants).  I proposed a course in ‘How to read critically’ (subtitle ‘How to detect bullshit’).  This seems to me to be the ultimate transferable skill. Bullshit occurs in every walk of life. My proposal was moderately worded and perfectly serious.

Guess what?  Despite several reminders, I have never had any response to my suggestion.  Well, I suppose that HR people now regard themselves as senior to mere professors and there is really no need to reply to their
letters.

Quackery in occupational health. Leicester sets a good example

If you work at a university, why not search the university’s web site for “complementary medicice” or complementary therapies”. If it is a real university, you won’t find any degrees in homeopathy, or in amethysts
that emit high yin energy
.  But some quite surprising places are found to be recommending magic medicine through their Occupational Health service, which usually seems to be part of HR.  In fact at one time even UCL was doing it, but no soon had somebody sent me the link than it disappeared. As a matter of historical record, you can see it here (it had all the usual junk, as well as harmless stuff like yoga and pilates).

While looking for something else I stumbled recently some other cases.  One was at the University of Leicester, a very good university (and alma mater to the great David Attenborough who must have done more to point out the beauty of science than just about anyone).  But we find on their staff wellbeing site, alongside some perfectly sensible stuff, a link to complementary therapies.

The list of ‘therapies’ includes not only the usual placebos, acupuncture, reiki, reflexology, but, even more exotically, a fraudulent Russian device called SCENAR therapy. They have a nice leaflet that explains all these things in words that run the whole gamut from meaningless gobbledygook to plain wrong.  Here are some examples from the leaflet.

Reflexology

“In the feet, there are reflex areas corresponding to all the parts of the body and these areas are arranged in such a way as to form a map of the body in the feet”

Reflexology has been shown to be effective for:

  • Back Pain
  • Migraine
  • Infertility
  • Arthritis

Well no, there are no such areas in your feet. That is sheer imagination.  And reflexology has not “been shown to be effective” for any of those conditions.  These claims for therapeutic efficacy are not only lies.  They are also illegal.

Reiki

Each hand position is held for a few minutes, and during this time healing energy will flow into you, balancing your energy system, releasing stress, soothing pain, and promoting your body’s natural ability to heal itself.”

This is sheer idiotic mumbo-jumbo. The “flow of healing energy” is totally imaginary. Such talk is offensive to anyone with half a brain. Insofar as they claim to heal anything, it is also illegal.  The comes SCENAR.

What is SCENAR?

SCENAR is an acronym for Self Controlled Energo- Neuro Adaptive Regulator. It is a reflex biofeedback device which when used by a qualified practitioner, can help to alleviate acute and chronic pain. It is licensed in the UK for pain relief but experience has shown that it is helpful in a wide variety of conditions.”

This is even more seriously nuts than the others.  The term “licensed” means merely that it is electrically safe. It certainly does not mean that it works.  Pubmed shows only three publications about the SCENAR device, all in Russian,

One sales site (apparently Russian) makes the following modest claim.

“A prime goal of the Russian Space Program was to provide space travelers with a portable  medical device that would become their “universal medical assistant” in space. So from the beginning, the SCENAR was designed to replace an entire medical hospital, with all its staff, diagnostic and treatment facilities, even the pharmacy. A universal, non-invasive, portable regulator of body functions (among other things) was envisaged.”

The SCENAR device (right) looks like a TV remote control (perhaps it IS a TV remote control -we aren’t anywhere told in comprehensible terms what’s in the box.  The Russian site sells also the rather baffling accessory on the right. The mind boggles.

SCENAR device

Remote rectal-vaginal electrode for SCENAR

How does this rubbish get onto the web site of a good university?

I presume that it is just another sign of what happens when universities come to be run by non-academics.  No doubt the occupational health people are well meaning and kind, but just scientifically illiterate. What about the HR person in charge of them?  They are not known for scientific literacy either (which would not matter if they stuck to their job).  But perhaps they just didn’t notice.  There is only one way to find out. Ask.  So I sent this letter.on 10th September.

Hello

I am a pharmacologist and I have a side interest in public understanding of science, alternative medicine.and medical fraud

I was quite surprised when Google led me unexpectedly to your complementary therapies page at http://www.le.ac.uk/staffwellbeing/complementary_therapy.html

There is, sad to say, a great deal of information on these pages that is simply not true. For example it has NOT been shown that reflexology has been shown to be effective in any of the conditions which you list, as far as I know
(please send me references if you think I’m wrong) “Reflexology has been shown to be effective for: Back Pain Migraine Infertility Arthritis Sleep disorders Hormonal imbalances Sports injuries Digestive disorders Stress-related condition ”

To take only one more example from this page, the SCENAR device is an even more extreme example. It is well known to be fraudulent. and has been investigated by the Washington State Attorney General.

This sort of thing is not what one would expect from a very respectable university, and it must be a great embarrassment to your excellent medical scientists.

Apart from the many scientific inaccuracies (which greatly impede the efforts of those of us who try to improve public understanding of science), you are, I hope, aware that there is a legal aspect.

Since May this year, new regulations have made it illegal to make claims for health benefits if evidence cannot be produced to show that the claims are justified.  I would like to put it to you that many of the claims made on this page are not only immoral, but also illegal.

I wondered whether you , or your HR department, would like to make any comments

Best regards

David Colquhoun


I got an immediate and very sympathetic response from the Director of HR and a week later, on17th September, he wrote

“Hi David,

I have discussed the matter with my manager of Staff Counselling and Welfare and have agreed that it is probably safest that we remove the references to ‘complimentary’[sic] therapies from the site entirely.

Thank you for your helpful input and the recommendations for reading matter.”

So there is a lesson here.  If you find this sort or stuff on your own institution’s web site, all that may be needed is a simple letter that points out what nonsense it is.  Admittedly the HR man seemed rather more worried about whether the claims were illegal than whether they were true, but either way, it worked.

Only one little snag.  As of 6 October the pages still have not been removed.

On the assumption that they eventually will be removed, I have kept copies of the Wellbeing page, of the Complementary Therapies page, and of the ‘explanatory leaflet’. They stand as part of a historical record that
shows, once again, what can happen when scientific matters get into the hands of HR. Fortunately Leicester University has an HR director who is willing to listen to advice.

Follow-up

Something seems to have gone seriously wrong. Despite the rapid response, virtually all the nonsense is still there on 13th October. It seems not to be so simple after all.

And despite several reminders, the advertisement for SCENAR ‘therapy’ is still on  the University web site on December 14th.  I know that no decision by HR can be made with fewer than 25 meetings and an awayday in Majorca, but this is getting ridiculous.


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